Fourteen students defend thesis research in 2021!

By Emily Montgomery, MLML Phycology Lab

2021 was a complex year to be a graduate student, with global societal issues demanding our attention and energy alongside our usual scientific workload. The emergence of the COVID-19 vaccines brought with it the hope of being able to safely socialize in-person with our friends and loved ones again. The resilient Moss community was able to return to some in-person activities in the Fall of 2021, including hosting the first lab Halloween party since 2019!

During this rollercoaster of a year, 14 students successfully defended their MLML theses virtually via Zoom. Please join me in congratulating the following students:

  • Ann Bishop, Phycology Lab
  • Taylor Eddy, Invertebrate Zoology Lab
  • Bonnie Brown, Fisheries and Conservation Biology Lab
  • Matthew Jew, Ichthyology Lab
  • Justin Cordova, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Gregory Bongey, Geological Oceanography Lab
  • Jennifer Tackaberry, Vertebrate Ecology Lab
  • Sophie Bernstein, Ichthyology Lab
  • Rachel Brooks, Ichthyology Lab
  • Holly Doerr, Ichthyology Lab
  • Melissa Naugle, Invertebrate Ecology Lab
  • Kristen Saksa, Ichthyology Lab
  • Jacquie Chisholm, Physical Oceanography Lab
  • Amanda Camarato, Physical Oceanography Lab

Read below for pictures of the graduates, and explore the links to their thesis announcement posts with more info about their projects and the YouTube recordings of their defenses.

Check out posts commemorating past defenders written by MLML alumna June Shrestha: 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017.

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Dissonance in science communication: Taking an evidence-based approach to discussing climate science

By Jason Gonsalves, MLML Physical Oceanography Lab


You don’t have to be actively involved in the larger national discussion to know that climate change is an increasingly sensitive topic, even in 2021. As unbelievable as it may sound, the chances of someone in your social circle not being under the impression that global warming is happening are shockingly high. In a 2020 survey, an estimated 72% of Americans think global warming is happening right now. When adjusting to a more specific question, that same survey showed that only 57% of Americans believe global warming is occurring as a result of human activities.

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Thirteen students defend thesis research in 2019!

By June Shrestha, MLML Ichthyology Lab

I'm happy to share that we've had a total of 13 students students defend their theses in 2019! Please join me in congratulating the students, and read below to learn a little more about their research.

  • Steven Cunningham, Phycology
  • Amanda Heidt, Invertebrate Zoology
  • Sharon Hsu, Vertebrate Ecology
  • Brijonnay Madrigal, Vertebrate Ecology
  • Cynthia Michaud, Physical Oceanography
  • Elizabeth Ramsay, Phycology
  • Katie Harrington, Vertebrate Ecology
  • Jessica Jang, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Melissa Nehmens, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Stephen Pang, Ichthyology Lab
  • Patrick Daniel, Physical Oceanography
  • Heather Barrett, Vertebrate Ecology
  • Sierra Helmann, Biological Oceanography

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Habitat Mapping: Marcel, Miya, & the Multibeam

By Miya Pavlock McAuliffe (Physical Oceanography Lab) and Marcel Peliks (Geological Oceanography Lab)

As a part of our Habitat Mapping Class this semester we undertook the mission of learning the ins and outs of seafloor mapping theory and practice to make our new Kongsberg M3 Multibeam system work. The M3 is a seafloor mapping system that has excited a lot of folks at MLML with its potential to collect geological, physical, and even biological data beneath the surface of the water. It depends upon many sensors as well as software, and right off the bat we would like to thank QPS for donating us a license to QINSY for data acquisition and Qimera for data processing! Another part of this project involved entering a National Geographic competition...which we’ll revisit later in this post.

Marcel and Miya troubleshooting the M3.

First, we must discuss the scientific questions we hope to address. We are a part of the Geological Oceanography lab and are interested in the mysterious submarine landslides that occur, starting at the head of the Monterey Canyon. A lot of research by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and California State University’s Seafloor Mapping Lab (SFML) have used deep water mapping technology and other high-tech equipment to study the canyon in the deep.

From these studies, we know that massive underwater landslides occur periodically at the edges of the canyon, and have been shown to move sand, mud, and rocks miles down. We aren’t sure why they happen and they don’t seem to match up with earthquakes or storms. Our hypotheses have to do with how sediment builds up at the head of the canyon and if it is connected to the longshore sediment transport system around the Monterey Bay. Does a submarine landslide occur following a large loss of sand on the beach? Are we losing beach sand to the belly of the canyon, forever? Can we correlate submarine landslide events with any other phenomena? In order to test our hypotheses we must map the head of the canyon more frequently than ever before and the M3 is a perfect instrument to allow us to do so.

Along the way, the MLML “Shop Guys” built us a pole mount to attach the M3 to a MLML whaler, a boat that we can take out to the canyon and survey within an hour or two. Dr. Ivano Aiello brought the M3 to the lab and QPS supplied the software to be able to acquire and process data. Dr. Tom Connolly supplied a field laptop that is water resistant, has a bright enough screen to beat the sun, and has a fantastic battery life, and we brought student brains that figured the rest out. This meant lots of reading manuals, troubleshooting, and more troubleshooting. When we couldn’t troubleshoot alone anymore, Pat Iampietro from CSUMB helped us through a major sticking point with his expertise. The wonderful community and affiliates of Moss Landing Marine Labs were integral to our journey the past few months.

Though we’ve had many challenges throughout the semester, we’ve succeeded in conducting some promising preliminary surveys with the equipment we have available: the field laptop, a Trimble ProXH GPS, and our M3. We’ve collected preliminary data in the Moss Landing Harbor as well as the head of the Monterey Submarine Canyon. See a map of some preliminary depths below:

Map of preliminary data collected by M3 in Moss Landing Harbor and head of submarine canyon. Red colors are shallow and blue colors are deep.

Still, we are in need of a few additional sensors to make any data collected with our system truly scientifically sound, including something called a Motion Reference Unit (MRU) and a gyro compass. Seafloor mapping draws from the fact that sound travels about five times faster in water than in air. The M3 is a transducer --or speaker-- that emits sound toward the seafloor, listens for the return, and calculates the two-way travel time to infer the depth of the seafloor below the boat.

Therefore, you must supply tide information (tide info found from NOAA tide gauges online), speed of sound information (which we do not yet have a way of measuring), information of the boat due to waves, as well as precise position information. An MRU would provide very precise information regarding the motion of the boat due to the motion of the ocean. Without athese measurements, we can’t be sure if the depths we are gathering are accurate. We can’t be sure because the motion of the boat would affect the angle at which the sound from the M3 is emitted which would affect the angle of return and therefore depth measurements. A gyro compass would give us accurate measurements of heading, which is critical to determining the direction the boat is moving with very high precision. We hope to get these sensors soon so that we can continue investigating the cause(s) of submarine landslides in the Monterey Canyon.

Having struggled with instrument troubleshooting, system setups, and constantly untangling cables, we gained a vast appreciation for marine technicians. Throughout this journey, we noticed that we couldn’t really find information about the inevitable struggles of setting up a new scientific system for the first time and decided to keep track of our trials and tribulations by way of a National Geographic Open Explorer Expedition. Read more here!

The OpenROV Trident the team won in the S.E.E. (Science Exploration Education) Initiative competition from National Geographic being opened in the lab!

You can subscribe to our Open Explorer page to receive updates when we reach new milestones (or more likely encounter new challenges). The Open Explorer page was also a part of a National Geographic Competition to win an underwater drone (aka remotely operated vehicle (ROV)), which we found out that we won! We hope that the underwater drone will provide a method of validating our seafloor mapping data once we’ve gathered the rest of the equipment we need, as well as prove useful for the rest of the MLML community.

Finally, we’d like to thank MLML for their amazing support in following our Open Explorer Expedition. We grew from 2 to 76 followers in two days, and are overwhelmed with the amount of help from our small community.

Congratulations to our 2017 graduates!

By June ShresthaIchthyology Lab

Congratulations to 14 students who defended their research theses and graduated from our program this year! Student research spanned across continents, taking us from the kelp forests of California, to the deep seas of South Africa, and even Antarctica!

The following students were awarded a Masters of Science in Marine Science:

  • Angela Zepp, Phycology
  • Devona Yates, Ichthyology
  • Maureen Wise, Chemical Oceanography & Phycology
  • Melinda Wheelock, Invertebrate Zoology
  • Kristin Walovich, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Dorota Szuta, Benthic Ecology
  • Scott Miller, Ichthyology
  • Ryan Manzer, Physical Oceanography
  • James Knuckey, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Jen Keliher, Invertebrate Zoology
  • Jinchen (Martin) Guo, Invertebrate Zoology
  • Christian Denney, Fisheries and Conservation Biology
  • Paul Clerkin, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Stephan Bitterwolf, Phycology

Read below to learn more about the graduates' research. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any additional questions!

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A Season of Faith’s Perfection

By Drew Burrier, Physical Oceanography Lab

That title was used in a movie to describe the hope that springs eternal at the start of a new baseball season and it has always stuck with me. Perhaps it comes from growing up in Cleveland, Ohio a city famous (until recently) for middling sports performance. And yet, every year, that first day of the season possesses a certain magic. The idea that this is the year, this is the year that it all comes together. On the first day of the season, teams and fan bases alike truly believes that they are headed to the World Series. That is the beauty of a season of promise, not yet touched by disappointment or shortcomings.

You might find it odd to be talking about the start of baseball season as the leaves are starting to change colors and falls cool morning are upon us and as pennant races are all but settled. Or for this subject to appear on a graduate student marine science blog, however for students all over the country strapping on their backpacks, the fall carries with it a spring sense of rebirth.

Students, Faculty and staff join for the annual barbecue to welcome the incoming students.

Here at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories this spirit is upon us once again. For the newest cohort, it is perhaps most obvious. They have come from all over the world to start their graduate work in marine science. It is an exciting time filled with promise. Some have come straight from the undergraduate programs and others have come from internships and full-time jobs. Yet they all carry with them the promise of a life remade by the commitment of time and energy they are about to dedicate to studying the earth’s ocean environs. For all of us Moss Landing marks the beginning of our careers as marine scientists. For the returning students, fresh off a summer mired in thesis work, the fall is also a time for shifting gears and buckling down to accomplish a new task. Our data collection has wrapped up, and now it is time to analyze what we’ve done in the field, and coalesce that into a polished, cogent work of science.

For me, it is my last fall here at the labs. And as my emerging crow’s feet and increasing waistline elicit a fall spirit, I am once again gripped by the promise that this new school year holds. Now the labors of 4 years come to fruition as I prepare to defend my thesis. At the same time I am planning for a life outside these walls, (as tough as giving up my office view will be), as critical a component of one's graduate work as defending it.

And so to the new cohort joining our ranks I bid you welcome, and best wishes as you begin this new chapter. To those of you returning from a summer spent fleshing out thesis projects I wish you happy hunting as you progress. Finally to my fellow fall defenders I wish you happy resolutions and fond memories as you put the finishing touches on this chapter and start the next. May this truly be a season of perfection.


Stepping up to the Plate

By Drew Burrier

When I originally conceived of this post 2 months ago I thought it would be a reflection of my experiences presenting my research at a major science conference for the first time.

It has since morphed into something else.

The third week of December I joined 20,000 of my colleagues in

AGU was held at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco

the Earth Sciences at the 2016 fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. I was one of around 8,000 students who arrived in San Francisco to present one of the 15,000 posters that would be displayed over the course of the week. It’s hard to describe the emotions of a graduate student attending their first conference. Its how I imagine a promising pitcher feels when they walk into a big league locker room after having been called up from the minors. They have left the relative comfort of the minor leagues, and are now face to face with their idols, the people they have admired in their profession from afar, never thinking it possible that they could one day compete on that level. They must ask themselves: “am I good enough to be here?”

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Class Cruisin’

By Drew Burrier

There are days that change you. One minute you are chasing what you thought was your dream, and then something comes along that changes your trajectory. Those days are rare, and can come to define one’s entire purpose in life.

For me that day was my first day at sea, working to unravel it’s mysteries aboard the R/V Pt. Sur. I had fallen in love with the ocean before, and knew that I wanted to become a scientist, but that day would come to change just exactly what aspect of Marine Science would become my life’s pursuit.

dsc_8312Prior to this cruise, whales and dolphins had dominated my interest in the ocean. They are charismatic and graceful, and inspire wonder in anyone able to view them in their world. I had been involved in research projects with these wondrous animals armed with a camera lens and a fast boat. So it was strange that a day at sea lowering instruments into the water and pulling them back up could supplant the sense of adventure I had already experienced. This particular cruise, however, was for the Physical Oceanography class that I had enrolled in at Moss Landing Marine Labs. Physical oceanography is the study of the physical properties of the ocean, or more bluntly, it is the study of how energy is put into and distributed in the global ocean. I had never considered it as a field I was interested in, or that it could even be an option for my career, but by the end of that day at sea, I new that I was not the same person that had left the dock.  It turned out the mysteries that I was most interested in, that appealed to me the most were not the creatures roaming the depths, but the awe-inspiring forces that shape our planet.

Last week I served as the Graduate Assistant for that same Physical Oceanography class and was able to observe the students in my class going through this same experience that had such a profound impact on me. The goal of this cruise was not simply to expose students to the joys of working at sea, but to hunt for elusive giants in oceanography: internal waves.

Our cruise path for our day's sampling. We samples this stations in order twice with a stop to change crews in between.

Internal waves are very similar to the surface waves you are most likely familiar with, with the exception that they oscillate within the ocean rather than at its surface, like the waves you may have surfed. The difficulty in studying these waves, however, is that they occur in parts of the ocean that are challenging to reach and require special instruments to be able to detect. One such suite of instruments is called a CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth), which is lowered through the ocean via a winch and measures the key components of density in the ocean, namely temperature, salinity (extrapolated from conductivity) and pressure (depth). These properties are unique throughout the world ocean and determine how internal waves behave because just like at the surface, waves propagate along density boundaries. The second tool we use to detect internal waves is an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP), which in simplest terms is an underwater speaker and microphone that makes a sound at a known frequency (pitch) and then listens for the return signal. The change in that pitch is related to the direction and speed that the current the sound wave passes through. You’ve undoubtedly experienced this if you’ve ever been standing still when a truck passed you blaring its horn. The sound at the truck is never changing, but since it is moving away from you, you perceive a pitch change. As internal waves pass the ADCP the velocity of the water at various depths tells us a lot about the characteristics of the internal waves.

The data we get back from the ADCP looks like this. Its broken down into the Eastward(U) and Northward(V) components of the velocity. The instrument also records quality control information (percent good) as well as the strength of the return.

As I watched my class donning life jackets and hard helmets, fighting the roll of the ship and the occasional wave spilling over the aft deck, straining to guide the heavy instrumentation on and off of the deck, wet and tired but undaunted, I couldn’t help but return their beaming smiles. Working aboard an oceanographic vessel is no simple feat, but for some reason nobody ever sees it as work. Not the first time, and not the 1,000th. It is an endless adventure that will continue to reward the persistent. I can certainly appreciate that not everyone gravitates to the field of oceanography as I have. But I can say with confidence, having seen it in the eyes of my students, that there is something universally magical about one’s first research cruise. I experienced it and it changed my life. The beauty of this field is that, there’s always something new to learn and experience.

The view aft of the rising sun behind the iconic smoke stacks in Moss Landing. On the deck is our CTD Rosette, which is lowered through the water column at each station.

Tidepooling Take Two

By Diane Wyse, Physical Oceanography Lab

Earlier this week, three graduate student volunteers and I ventured to Bay View Academy in Monterey to talk with the fourth grade class about trophic levels and intertidal zonation.  I had the unique opportunity to lead the trip again this year, you can learn about the first iteration of this trip in one of my very first posts for the Drop-In.

Sara Worden, Heather Kramp, Dorota Szuta, and Diane Wyse lead a classroom safety briefing and intertidal lesson. Photo: Erika McPhee-Shaw (2013)
Sara Worden, Heather Kramp, Dorota Szuta, and Diane Wyse lead a classroom safety briefing and intertidal lesson. Photo: Erika McPhee-Shaw (2013)

I volunteered for the trip again this year because it is the sort of educational outreach experience that to me really embodies the spirit of MLML; sharing resources and experiences from multiple labs and teaching in our beautiful marine backyard.  The student volunteers represented the Physical Oceanography Lab, the Phycology Lab (Sara Worden), the Benthic Ecology Lab (Dorota Szuta), and the Ichthyology Lab (Heather Kramp). Another reason I volunteered again? Try passing up an opportunity to geek out science on one of the prettiest beaches in the world.  Yeah, it’s tough to do.

Benthic Ecology Lab student Dorota Szuta teaches a group of fourth grade girls about intertidal invertebrates. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)
Benthic Ecology Lab student Dorota Szuta teaches a group of fourth grade girls about intertidal invertebrates. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)

Working off an intertidal food web lesson plan developed by the Teaching Enhancement Program at MLML, the grad student volunteers introduced the fourth grade class to the organisms in tidepools at Asilomar State Beach.  We were impressed by the knowledge the students shared with us that their teacher Alicia Doolittle had introduced in previous lessons.  At the beach it was hard to tell who was more excited to explore the intertidal – the elementary students, grad students, or even the parent chaperones!

Ichthyology Lab student Heather Kramp shows some intertidal organisms to an interested chaperone and the youngest field trip participant. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)
Ichthyology Lab student Heather Kramp shows some intertidal organisms to an interested chaperone and the youngest field trip participant. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)

This year’s trip was especially cool for me as my graduate advisor, Dr Erika McPhee-Shaw, who serves as a board member for Bay View Academy, was along for the trip and helped to photo-document the field lessons.  I’ll admit it was a bit intimidating to be on the other side of things – here’s a highly-regarded physical oceanographer who has taught me equations of motion, coastal dynamics, and guided me through the steps of a Master’s research thesis, and here I am fielding questions about the inner workings of the ocean to a class of fourth graders while she listens in the audience.  It reinforced something I’ve learned time and again through graduate school, that the more simply and elegantly you can describe a complicated process, the more completely you understand it.  With the students’ healthy appetite for knowledge our conversation ventured from why ocean water is blue to a comparison of ecological zonation on a beach versus a mountain.

Recognize those t-shirts? The 2013 Open House tshirts were designed by our very own Dorota Szuta! Photo: Alicia Doolittle (2013)
Recognize those t-shirts? The 2013 Open House t-shirts were designed by our very own Dorota Szuta! Photo: Alicia Doolittle (2013)

From the closing discussion it was clear that invertebrates were the crowd favorite: the hermit crabs, the purple pisaster (ochre) seastar, even the tunicates were getting some love thanks to the students’ curiosity about the round little chordates.  Will student leaders from MLML lead the trip again?  You better believe it!

R/V Point Sur in Transit

By Diane Wyse

The R/V Point Sur is heading home this week, and students have had the opportunity to help with various science operations and add some cruise time to their resumes by joining up for a leg or two of the trip.  Check out this post by Ashley Wheeler, a first year in the Geological Oceanography Lab at MLML, about her experiences aboard our beloved vessel.

Ashley Wheeler – Photo by Tara Pastuszek
Ready on deck, the CTD package is set to deploy at sunrise – Photo by Ashley Wheeler